6th DECEMBER 2018
My final full day in Albania starts with breakfast in Hotel Veli’s basement restaurant. It’s much the same fare as yesterday, only today I’m given two shots of home-made Raki for the road. I’m not quite sure how consuming straight alcohol for breakfast will help my cycling, but I don’t want to appear rude by refusing, and both shots duly disappear. As I’m leaving, the same guy who checked me in shakes my hand with an iron grip and wishes me ‘Good Road’.
Today I’ll be riding the same route I took into Sarandë on my last day of cycling in September, but in reverse this time. Unfortunately, this prior knowledge means I know to expect a steep road over a mountain pass before I can descend to the Greek border. A steep uphill / downhill combination gets me out of town, before I climb very gradually for the next 20km. All the time I’m following the course of an amazingly clear stream, which is flowing slowly down towards Sarandë as I head upstream. When I look back I can see the outline of Lëkurësi Castle’s ruins in the distance, standing on the hill that overlooks town.
My road is about to climb sharply, so I decide to stop for lunch and a breather before tackling the slope. I’m standing at the side of the road, about to happily munch into a chocolate-filled croissant, when I’m spotted by a huge dog that’s roaming around outside a farmhouse. To my dismay, it’s not tied up and comes bounding out of the property barking and snapping like a maniac. The thing is alongside me in seconds, looking almost like a lion with its sandy-coloured coat. Bloody Hell, it’s nearly the same size as a lion too ! This creature is big ! There’s not even time to put my lunch back in my panniers. I position my bike between me and the beast and walk away very slowly, trying to look as calm as possible, which isn’t easy with a croissant still clamped between my teeth. Thankfully, the dog loses interest as I move away from its territory, but I continue to push my bike until I’m round the next corner and out of sight.
After being harassed by a monster dog, the climb itself is a bit of an anticlimax. The ascent is mostly through woodland and nowhere near as exhausting as the Llogara Pass, but then it is only half the height. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of steep sections, hairpin bends and also a few rest stops to allow me to catch breath. I’ve even got sweat trickling down my forehead and dripping from the end of my nose again, which feels oddly satisfying. At one point I’ve stopped at the roadside when a guy going downhill in an old cream Mercedes pulls over. His car looks like it’s from a seventies cop show, and he looks to be from the same decade with his thick moustache and aviator sunglasses. He must think I’m in some sort of trouble as he simply enquires ‘Problem ?’ I put a hand on my chest and mime a rapidly beating heart. He seems to understand as he just nods and drives off.
My final push to the summit involves a straight, steady climb with mountains rising on either side of me and a headwind being funneled straight into my face. This slows me down, but I still make the top fairly easily, and there’s no getting off to push the bike this time either. I put on my kagoule for the descent and freewheel down the other side, which looks barren and rocky compared to the climb I’ve just ridden up. I’m transported down to a flat, wide valley floor, where I turn right and join the main road towards Greece.
I’m then expecting a leisurely ten minute cycle to my accommodation but, annoyingly, it turns out to be much further and sits almost on the Greek border. It’s the old Albanian favourite of ‘Petrol Station with Rooms’ again, which seems quite fitting for my final night here. An older lady greets me, but defers to her son as he speaks better English. He shows me to an upstairs room and then tells me to just bring the bike in with me. The first appliances I’m made aware of are the wall heater and an electric blanket, which suggests he’s expecting a cold night. Both are quickly utilised, giving my room such a warm, cosy feel that I’m fast asleep before 9.00pm.
When I turn on my phone the following morning, I’m surprised to see a chilly -1C displayed as the temperature for my location. I go downstairs to the petrol station restaurant to see cars outside with frost covering their windows. I know that it’s December and I know I’m about a thousand feet above sea-level, but that still doesn’t stop me feeling surprised. Breakfast is served by the lady who greeted me and consists of three giant, thick slabs of bread and a feta cheese omelette. There’s no butter and no coffee. I portion the omelette on to the bread chunks and attempt to get my mouth over the tallest open sandwich that I’ve ever encountered.
To start my ride there’s a steady climb up to the Border Post, which helps to warm me up if nothing else. I join the queue of cars as normal and get through the passport check without any problems. My final obstacle before departing Albania is a border guard who seems to be checking the contents of almost every car leaving the country. Beside him there’s a long table, strewn with bags and cases which have been pulled from the car in front of me. When he sees me he stops searching through the luggage and waves me forward. He asks where I’m from and if I’m travelling alone. I tell him ‘Scotsi’ and look around me to indicate that I am definitely alone. It looks like he’s warming to me now and asks ‘Drugs, Weapons ?’ while trying to suppress a smile. Even if I was carrying them, I’m hardly likely to admit it, so I just laugh and say ‘No, No, No !’ He waves me through with a grin and without checking my bags.
I have about 200 metres of ‘No Man’s Land’ till the Greek checkpoint, before I join the slow-moving car queue once again. The lead vehicle looks to be Albanian, with the occupants presenting a raft of messy documents to the Greek officials in an effort to gain entry. This looks like it could take a while, so I stand there looking bored but still polite. A burly bloke in an army uniform approaches me and tells me to go to the front of the queue. I show my passport and am through in seconds while the poor Albanians in the first car are still fumbling around with their mountain of paperwork. It gets me thinking about how people are treated differently due to the lottery of which country they happen to be born in. My UK passport is working in my favour today, but that wouldn’t be the case in every country.
There’s a long, steady uphill from the Greek border, with snow on the higher mountain tops further inland. Again, this takes me a little bit by surprise as I didn’t really expect to see snow in Greece. It’s a plodding climb, but brilliantly quiet due to traffic trickling through slowly from the border post behind me. I’m also delighted to find that the Greek road surface resembles smooth marble when compared to Albania. A sweeping downhill then speeds me towards a small, picturesque lake, surrounded by mountains and rust-coloured autumnal foliage. It’s a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in the Scottish Highlands.
I’ve arranged to stay with a Warmshowers host family tonight in a mountain village called Zitsa. I leave the main road and start heading further into the hills. These country roads climb and descend like a rollercoaster and are home to more dogs than I’ve ever seen in my life. Most of them are farm dogs protecting their property, but there are a huge amount of strays as well. This is a worrying development, so I take to stuffing a couple of decent sized stones into the back pocket of my cycling top in case one tries to take a bite. I’m hoping my ‘Dog Stones’ will only need to be used as a threat and never actually thrown.
A further 15km of winding, twisty roads gets me to Zitsa by late afternoon. I wasn’t given a street address for my hosts, but was told to just find the village bakery or ask for Kostas and Anna because everybody knows them. The bakery proves easy enough to find as the village is tiny, with a population of only four hundred. My instructions were to stand outside and shout to let them know I’ve arrived, so I do just that. Anna pops her head out of the flat above the bakery and invites me in.
Anna is an American woman in her early forties who met her Greek husband when she stayed with him as a Couchsurfing guest. They kept in touch, visited a couple of times, and eventually she left her high-powered legal career in Boston to be the wife of a baker in the Greek mountains. She’s lived here for six years now and seems wonderfully content leading a much simpler life than previously. I’m treated to a bowl of lentil soup and a meal of broad beans in Mediterranean vegetables, home-made by Kostas’ mother. The broad bean dish is from an old Greek Mama recipe, filling me with the tastiest, healthiest food I’ve had for a week.
After I’ve eaten, Anna shows me to where I’ll be sleeping, which is actually two shops away from the bakery. I’m directed down a flight of stairs to a large basement with high ceilings and, bizarrely, a library running along the back wall. Anna says the books are because she wanted to provide a resource for the village while also trying to involve herself in the local community. I’ll be sleeping on a fold-out bed between two fully stacked bookshelves in Zitsa’s public library. If that’s not the weirdest place I’ve slept, it will certainly be in my Top Ten.
After showering and sorting out my gear I pop back up to chat with my hosts. Anna is putting their three year old to bed, so suggests I go back downstairs to meet Kostas in the bakery. He’s busy preparing mixes for tomorrow, but invites me in, gives me a square pizza slice and tells me to take a cold drink from the fridge. It transpires that he has been hosting travellers for about ten years and I’m his 974th guest ! Any time he sees a cycle tourer on the road, or if a foreigner comes into the bakery he will offer them a bed for the night. He’s an amazingly generous human being. I stay for a couple of hours before leaving him to his work and heading back downstairs to my basement room. It’s become chilly now in the big, bare room so I drag a fan heater over beside my bed and get into my sleeping bag. I drift off to sleep under a shelf of Greek encyclopedias.
I end up staying two nights at Anna and Kostas’ place, heeding Anna’s advice about not getting to see much of the village if I only stay for one day. For part of my sightseeing, I’m taken for a Saturday afternoon drive, and intuitively go to walk round to the driver’s side of the car again, even though I’m the passenger. By now I’m accustomed to cycling on the right, but I still can’t get used to drivers sitting on the left. I’m taken halfway up a steep lane towards Zitsa monastery, where we park and then walk the remaining distance. We stroll through tall, mature woodland where tree leaves are only now turning to yellows, reds, browns and beginning to fall. It looks like autumn in the UK, but the process is happening two months later. Zitsa monastery is famous because the poet Byron stayed there as a guest when he visited the area. Nowadays, the place is home to just one monk who the villagers haven’t entirely taken to. It seems he’s not quite religious enough for the locals and keeps a very messy, unclean monastery. In my head I’m picturing him as an old Father Jack, the drunken, lecherous priest from Father Ted.
We drive back for a late lunch of spaghetti with veg, leftover bean mix, chicken pie and yet more bakery bread. We also drink some white wine that is coloured pink, but apparently isn’t a rosé. In the early evening we’re joined by a German family who have just arrived in their campervan. They stayed with Kostas eight years ago when they were just a young couple, and now they have returned with their children in tow all these years later. They’ll be joining me downstairs in the basement, which means that a quiet night is unlikely. Their kids are five months and three years old.
Once the Germans have showered and sort themselves out in the basement, they join us upstairs for dinner. The main dish is a pasta-based soup that we crumble feta cheese into, along with further massive helpings of bread. I’ve been eating like a horse since I arrived in Zitsa yesterday and I can’t thank my hosts enough. Anna had told me they were so used to cyclists having huge appetites that they always fed them more than normal Couchsurfing guests ! I head back downstairs a little while after the Germans to find they have sectioned off part of the basement with a curtain to give themselves almost a private room. I have a little night light illuminating my bookshelf den, which remains on until the German family have settled down for the night. Heavy rainfall is battering noisily off the windows outside while, inside, I’m sharing a room with a family that includes a toddler and a baby. How much sleep I’ll get in the next few hours is anyone’s guess.